Rhonda Perky shares her reflections on ending up in an abusive relationship and how she eventually walked away.
This last week has been unexpectedly harrowing. In recognition of White Ribbon Day, the media has been flooded with stories of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, family violence, and men’s violence against women — whatever you want to call it.
From documentaries such as the ABC’s Hitting Home series, to podcasts, to articles covering my timeline, the similarly of the stories struck me repeatedly. Men, refusing to accept responsibility for their choices, their actions: they were provoked; it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t realise the fear their behaviour instilled. They had no control of themselves, only of their partners, their children. They believed they were entitled to that control. The women were broken, beaten down, believing this is what they deserved, clinging to hope, no matter how minuscule, that things would get better. They were frightened. They were ashamed.
As I watched, and read, and listened, I sobbed. These stories were mine.
Although I ended my abusive relationship many years ago, I still have a lot to process. Questions unanswered. Like, why did it take so long for me to acknowledge I was in an abusive relationship? Why did it take so long to get out? Why did no one intervene? Did my friends try, but try the wrong things? Why didn’t my family try at all? Why is my abuser still out there, with the support of his friends, of society, free to do it all again to someone else?
Former Police Commissioner Ken Lay points out that we learn the behaviours and attitudes that lead to and sustain abuse throughout our lives. He’s right. From childhood, I learnt how to be abused, controlled, manipulated. How to placate. How to collude. To walk on eggshells. To internalise responsibility. To conceal the truth and to carry the shame. Turns out I am a very good learner.
As an adult, my thought process while being abused by my partner was terrifying. When he struck me fully in the face, when he screamed or held me down, pinched and grabbed, ground his teeth against my face until my lips bled, a voice inside me said, ‘See? He must truly love you. He wouldn’t be this angry, this upset, if you weren’t important to him.’ It seemed sick, even then, yet it resonated with the part of me that watched my father beat my eldest sister, but only ever intimidate me. I felt I didn’t matter as much to him; I wasn’t worth beating. That part didn’t recognise my father never had to beat me, because I knew to run the instant he raised his hand. That same part felt at home, finally, with a partner who ‘cared enough’ to hit me.
…a voice inside me said, ‘See? He must truly love you. He wouldn’t be this angry, this upset, if you weren’t important to him.’
My father never hit my mother, but he abused her just the same. He intimidated her, manipulated, and controlled her, lying with terrifying ease. In turn, she taught us to fear him, to placate, to watch out for his moods, to avoid provoking him. We weren’t allowed sit in his chair, obstruct his parking spot, laugh too loudly, or have too much fun. Life revolved around keeping his frightening explosions contained.
When my parents finally separated, my sisters and I sneaked the remote control onto the floor of my parent’s living room and with a kind of nervous hysteria, rejoiced that we weren’t being rebuked, while in the kitchen my mother dropped a plate and braced herself for the tirade that never came, before weeping with relief.
Oh yes, I learnt well how to tiptoe around tempers, how to defer to those bigger, stronger and louder than me. I learnt it was my responsibility to keep others calm, to apologise even when it wasn’t my fault, to internalise blame for their faults and upsets.
And when my father hit my sister, when she walked around with a black eye for everyone to see, I learnt to lie and collude, to tell people it happened during a sporting match – slightly more plausible than a slip in the shower. Among ourselves, we muttered that she deserved it because she had provoked him. This remains my family’s narrative.
When I found a partner just as entitled, moody, violent, and controlling as my father, a constant liar with a tragic past to excuse any wrongdoing, someone selfish and misogynistic, who professed to love me, to be willing to fight for me, it was like a salve for that broken little girl who didn’t know how to experience love without fear and control. And when I pushed back, when I questioned him, called him out on his lies and he turned violent, it felt natural, familiar: this was real love, finally.
Among ourselves, we muttered that she deserved it because she had provoked him.
I spent the better part of eighteen months trying to heal that old wound, trying to walk away, yet also needing to stay, to try to help him, because on some level I felt he was my responsibility. During that time, my life spun out of control. While I was with him, I experienced intense anxiety. I was chasing his lies, trying to make sense of who he was and what I was doing with him — who I was when I was with him. Because this wasn’t adult me. This was childhood me. The me who cowered in fear, who needed him to see the truth, that he was wrong, who needed to help him, who didn’t have the skills or the ability to stand up for herself, who was terrified of provoking him, of seeing him walk away and never look back. The me who just wanted his love.
I don’t know what my friends thought. Most likely they wanted their old friend back. I wanted me back. I know they didn’t like him. They thought he was bad for me, that I should leave him. Yet no one forced my hand. They tread just as lightly around the topic as we had as children. No one confronted head on that he was abusive, that I was in an abusive relationship. There were whispers, hints, timid persuasion, but the onus was on me to leave, no matter how terrified I was of the consequences, no matter that the longer I stayed the more I felt invested in getting the relationship right, the more I felt I deserved his treatment.
I grew more anxious and suspicious each day, and most certainly appeared controlling and unhinged. When you are dating a master manipulator who constructs scenarios to trigger your insecurity, it is harrowing. I lived on edge, constantly wondering, constantly fearing. It made it easy for him to convince me I was crazy, that I deserved his anger and contempt.
Each time I pulled away, when I gained sufficient space to feel I could leave, he lured me back with false promises. Every time I went back, I felt less worthy, weaker, more foolish, and more ashamed. The more beaten down I became the more I put up with. I would point to and praise the tiniest things, searching for signs of worthiness in him. There was so little, but I clung just the same. He convinced me no one would love me the way he did. By then it wasn’t difficult to believe. Now I think, I hope no one ever loves me that way again, if that is what ‘love’ is.
He convinced me no one would love me the way he did. By then it wasn’t difficult to believe.
My shame kept me from coming forward, from telling my friends (who must have known on some level) the extent of the abuse. He kept me largely isolated, so most of it occurred in private. The last night we were together was an exception. He beat me in my home, in my bedroom, while there were guests in the living room next door. I had caught him in a lie and humiliated him in front of his friends so he ‘needed to teach me a lesson’. I had stormed out and he followed. He hit me again and again and again. ‘See what you made me do?’ he screamed. ‘See how you’ve ruined this?’
In the preceding month, I had been overseas, a desperately needed break that gave me distance and perspective. (He had almost convinced me not to go). It calmed my anxiety. A few days before I was due to come home, the anxiety kicked back in. I realised as long as I was with him I would never be free, so I decided to end things. He must have known. He showered me with his ‘efforts’ (not much effort at all, in hindsight) to be a better partner, to show how much he cared and how he had changed. I felt obliged to give him another, final chance, and clung more desperately than before to every sign he had changed, that we could make this work. When he hit me that night, I feared I had ruined the progress we made. I took responsibility and kept apologising for provoking him. Because I had learnt this is how you fix things, how you quiet the beast, how you earn love.
The next day I went into work early, still trembling, hyped on adrenalin, having barely slept. I ended up blurting out what happened to a colleague. I was lamenting ruining the relationship, saying it was all my fault, that I wanted to know how I could make things right, yet this colleague recognised it for what it was. She named it and insisted I call the police. ‘He hit you,’ she said. ‘That’s not okay, under any circumstances. That’s assault’.
I don’t know what response I expected, but that wasn’t it. It got through to me. He had hit me. Repeatedly. It wasn’t okay.
I called the police. The officer I spoke to instilled sufficient terror to gain my attention. He described the pattern – highlighted that it was a pattern, a pattern he saw every day, a pattern that ended in calls to his unit and often an ambulance ride. He said, it might start with yelling and screaming, and then moves on to grabbing, holding, shoving, and rough handling. Next, he hits you. Then he throws you against a wall. How do you know the next time you won’t end up in hospital, or worse? He had just described my relationship. I recognised the escalating violence. I had tried to leave so many times. This time I appreciated the real risk of staying.
The officer’s priority wasn’t arrest or prosecution, it was getting me out and getting me safe, and that became my priority too. I made a time to go in to the local police station and make a statement. One of his friends, a potential witness, offered to come with me. But then he got to her. On the morning we were due to go to the station she called to tell me he had agreed to see a therapist on the proviso she didn’t go with me to the police. I heard her parroting his lies, making excuses for him, clutching at any justification, no matter how improbable. It was like watching me from the outside. She felt responsible for him, she was all he had, it wasn’t his fault.
The officer’s priority wasn’t arrest or prosecution, it was getting me out and getting me safe, and that became my priority too.
Without witnesses, it would be my word against his. He was an expert liar and manipulator — he didn’t even use his real name. I learnt from my mother you don’t attempt to fight liars and manipulators when it’s your word against theirs. They are proficient at spin, at winning people over with words and charm. I also knew if I gave a statement to the police, whatever came next would be out of my control. They would speak to him, and I was terrified of his retaliation. He had destroyed people’s careers for less.
The police advised me to get myself to safety, to do whatever I needed to keep him away. He was terrified of having this on his record, so I agreed not to proceed as long as he never contacted or threatened me again. I blocked him on every possible channel, and shortly after, relocated so he wouldn’t know where I lived. I got myself into therapy to get through the next little while, and leaned heavily on my wonderful friends.
I am forever indebted to my colleague that morning for naming the abuse, for calling it out, to the police officer who scared the shit out of me on the phone, and to my friend J for offering protection and putting me in contact with professional support.
Former Police Commissioner Ken Lay is right. Even if we are not directly involved in an abusive relationship, we learn not to intervene, that abuse is ‘domestic’, private, and none of our business, and so we look away. We hint and hope that our friend will get herself away, that our mother will leave, and that our children will know better. Sometimes that friend, that mother, that child, needs a place to go where she can feel safe and strong. She needs us to name what is happening, to both parties, to force them to own it, to understand the reality. She doesn’t need to be blamed and shamed, and he doesn’t need to be excused.
It’s so much more complex than stay or go. He is beating her down. She feels frightened and worthless. She feels ashamed. He feels justified and entitled. She feels responsible, and we make her so. It’s not enough to stand by and hope. If she felt she could simply leave, don’t you think she would have already done so?
We place the onus on women to get out, but we don’t give them the tools or the support to do so. We expect them to find strength, but don’t acknowledge the weak position they are starting from. It’s like having a bookcase fall on you and break both your arms, then being asked to lift it off by yourself.
It’s like having a bookcase fall on you and break both your arms, then being asked to lift it off by yourself.
We need to say to her, ‘When you are ready to leave, I will help you. I will be with you. I will hold your hand. I will hide you from him. I will come with you to the police. I will hold him accountable and make others hold him accountable. What he is doing is not okay. You do not need to feel shame. This can happen to anyone. It is not your fault. You deserve better. No one deserves abuse. You did not “provoke” this. People do things others don’t like. That does not make abuse okay. You are not his property. He does not control you. He needs to learn to deal with his emotions, not take them out on you.’
To him, we need to say, ‘Stop treating her like this. It’s not okay. It is abuse. You are intimating her. She is not your property. You do not own her. She is not yours to control. Learn to deal with your emotions in a healthy way. Get some professional help. This is not how you treat other people, no matter how hurt, insecure or angry you feel. Your behaviour is a choice. Manipulation is a choice. Intimidation is a choice. Violence is a choice. Abuse is a choice. We will not tolerate your behaviour, not physical, not emotional. Hold yourself accountable as we hold you accountable.’
When you are in an abusive relationship, you hide what is really happening from others, but also from yourself, while the people around you collude by not speaking up. I now understand that abuse follows a distinct pattern and that it can happen to anyone. Women don’t need to be told it’s their responsibility to end it. They are there because they are already taking responsibility. To break the pattern we need to unlearn what we expect from men and women. We must stop tolerating abuse, stop expecting women to placate, to internalise responsibility and to carry shame, and start expecting men to be accountable, to see women as people not property. Most of all we need to call it when we see it, shame-free. Because we can’t begin to change until we acknowledge change is needed.